September 20, 2012
Chris Carpenter's Comeback and the Unlikeliest Post-Season Player
Chris Carpenter will make his 2012 debut for the Cardinals tomorrow afternoon at Wrigley Field, which means he’ll have time for only two starts before the playoffs. Carpenter last pitched in the seventh game of the 2011 World Series, so he’s essentially skipped the low-stakes section of the season and skipped straight to the exciting parts. (Thanks, thoracic outlet syndrome!)
You might wonder whether simulated games could prepare Carpenter to waltz back into the majors on September 21st after surgery and several months away from the mound. You might also wonder whether he could possibly be better than one of the top three or four starters on a playoff-bound team. Regardless of what Scott Boras' soon-to-be-published Kyle Lohse free-agent manifesto might say, the Cardinals have a rotation without any real ace. However, they also have a rotation without any real holes. All of their starters have been about league average this season, except for Lohse, who’s league average on the down-low. Carpenter has to be better than league average to displace someone, and since it’s late September, he has to showcase his skills quickly and convincingly if he wants to pitch in the postseason. In light of his past performance, his popularity, and his commitment to coming back, he likely has more than two outings ahead of him.
Carpenter’s buzzer-beat comeback attempt made me wonder whether his return would be the latest season debut by a player who went on to appear in the playoffs. And when I wonder something, it usually means that Colin Wyers is about to get a query request. So, courtesy of Colin’s query, here are all the debuts from September 15th on since the start of the Wild Card era:
Carpenter’s debut will come on the same date that Glen Perkins’ career debut did on 2006. Perkins pitched a third of an inning in the Twins’ ALDS Game Three loss a couple weeks later. The only debut to come later than Perkins’ was that of Steve Torrealba, whose story is the real reason I'm writing this post.
Some September arrivals go on to make an impact in October before using their playoff success as a springboard toward stardom—Francisco Rodriguez in 2002, for instance, or David Price in 2008. Steve Torrealba wasn't springing toward anything lasting, though at the time it must have seemed like he was.
Torrealba, a 23-year-old catcher and right-handed hitter, had to have been one of the least-experienced players ever to appear on a playoff roster. He played in the last two games of the regular season, making two plate appearances and catching three innings. And then: playoffs. In the first game of the NLDS, he made one plate appearance, doubling off Mike Williams. It was his second major-league hit, and also his second-to-last. The Braves made it to the NLCS, but Torrealba didn’t. He got a couple call-ups the next season, went 1-for-17, and finished the year (and his career) with a career .105 average (not counting his playoff 1-for-1).
So how did that unlikely post-season appearance happen? Javy Lopez sprained his ankle on September 30th and was left off the roster until the NLCS, when he came back to take Torrealba’s place. Eddie Perez had just returned from a serious shoulder injury, and it wasn’t clear that he could catch a full game. The Braves needed a short-term backup for Paul Bako, so they called up Torrealba from Double-A Greenville, where he was hitting a respectable .271/.347/.424. He didn’t spend much time in the spotlight, but he spent more time there than most of us. And not only did Torrealba get a big-league hit and big-league benefits out of the gig, he also got a comment in Baseball Prospectus 2002:
You might have missed it, but Torrealba was on last year’s postseason roster because of Javy Lopez’s injuries. That's not too shabby for a guy who missed a month after fouling a pitch off of his knee. With Lopez and Bako both coming back, he'll hang out in Richmond and wait for injuries.
The injuries never occurred. Torrealba bounced around the minors, the Atlantic League, and the Mexican League, but he never made it back to the big leagues. The last line of his Wikipedia page reads, “In a two-season career, Torrealba has hit .105 with one RBI in 17 games played.” It’s probably safe to change the present perfect tense to past tense at this point, but who would have the heart?